Handcrafted Healing: Bamboo Bend Project brings veterans to Grayling
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
Channeling his attention and focus into building his own custom made bamboo fly rod last week, Gary Herber continued healing from the scars of war with his fellow veterans.
A resident Douglasville, Georgia, located just west of Atlanta, Herber was among eight disabled military veterans who took part in the seventh annual Bamboo Bend Project at the Lovells Township Community Center last week.
Herber was with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division based of New York State and fought with 3rd Brigade Combat Team in 2009 in Afghanistan. His platoon encountered 13 attacks from improvised explosive device (IED) – a homemade bomb or destructive device utilized to destroy, incapacitate, harass or distract soldiers used by terrorists, suicide bombers, and insurgents – during their first three months in combat.
“None of us came back the same,” said Herber, who suffered a traumatic brain injury. “Everybody in that platoon got hurt in one way or another, either physically or emotionally.”
During the next three years, Herber fought to obtain his retirement benefits from the military and to establish a plan through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs system to regain his health.
“When I left the Army, I lost everything. I lost my friends, I lost my focus in life, I lost my goals,” Herber said. “I wanted to be in the Army forever. That was my career. That was my passion. I loved it and I loved everything about it. When they took that away from me, I thought I lost my reason to live.”
Over the next four years, Herber remained in a state of isolation and rarely left his home. He had a number of suicide attempts and stays in treatment centers for traumatic brain injuries.
During that phase, Herber was introduced to Project Healing Waters, a program which is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.
Through the program, Herber gained strength from veterans who understood what he was dealing with.
“That’s something I never really understood. I always felt like I was all alone and like nobody would understand my problems or understood where I was coming from. The more I hung out with other veterans, the more I realized a lot of them felt the same way for the same reasons,” Herber said. “There’s strength in numbers, and that’s the great thing about the Army is you are surrounded by people that understand you. All day every day, you work with people, you eat with people, you sleep in the same room those people that live that same life as you do, and those people understand everything you do and want. When I left the Army, I didn’t think there was anybody else in the world that could understand me.”
Herber learned that he could again have good relationships with a spouse, kids, parents and other family members.
“It’s OK to let them love you through it,” he said. “I was always afraid I would hurt the people that I loved the most.”
Bamboo Bend, a locally organized and funded project which has the motto “Handcrafted Healing for Heroes,” brought the military veterans to the Grayling area for a nine-day stay.
The only pain Herber felt last week was from was what he inflicted on himself.
“I’m ecstatic to be here,” he said. “I’m pinching myself on an hour-by-hour basis because it almost doesn’t seem real.”
Alvin Shell, from Arlington, Virginia, served with the military police in the U.S. Army. In 2004, he was badly burned when he was pulling a fellow solider out of a fire after an IED attack.
Shell was in coma for 10 days, then was treated in an air compressed bubble for a couple of months, followed by a stay in an intensive care unit. He then went through inpatient and outpatient care to help heal the burns.
Overall, Shell received hospital care for two years.
“It was one fight after another, and I had a lot of family and friends help me through that process, and now I’m doing fairly well,” he said.
Project Healing Waters prompted Shell’s drive to accomplish a goal to learn how to fly fish.
“For me it was like one of those bucket list things,” he said. “When I was in my hospital bed, I felt like if I ever get a chance to move again, walk again or talk again, I would love to be able to go learn how to fly fish.”
Shell said sharing stories and joking with fellow veterans made him less apprehensive to fly half way across the country to be in Grayling. He added that the integrity of the Bamboo Bend and Project Healing Waters helps veterans branch out and flourish.
“We build our ourselves and our personality off of that and it’s good to connect with other people that do same thing,” he said.
Kiley Battaglin, from Colorado Springs, served as a medic and LPN for the U.S. Army as the Vietnam War was winding down in 1974.
A native of Chicago, she served at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The facility was the largest orthopedic center for the Air Force in the country, so staff treated a number of victims that lost their legs and limbs on the battlefields.
Battaglin suffers from an autoimmune disease, which impacts her hearing, and has some damaged vertebrae in her back.
In 2014, Battaglin started completing paperwork for her local chapter for Project Healing Waters and has since worked her way to serve as a program leader.
Battaglin is the first female participant to take part in Bamboo Bend. She said it has been a dream to build a bamboo rod, which she can fish with, just like her ancestors.
“If I step back in time, I can use this rod and pursue the sport,” she said. “To be honest, these actually fish better than the newer technology.”
Battaglin said she was pleased by the outpouring of support from the rod makers teaching the class, river guides who took the veterans fishing, and other volunteers that make Bamboo Bend happen.
“They are so involved in this and are just to psyched for us to be here,” she said. “It’s the most welcoming thing that I felt in a long, long time.”
Pete Robertson, from Fredericksburg, Virginia, served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1969, when the most intensive battles of the war were being fought.
He was an air frames mechanic serving with an air squadron on an aircraft carrier.
“I patched bullet holes when they came back,” he said.
Robertson decided to start passing his knowledge about fly fishing on to current veterans returning from the battlefields. For him, it was a way of healing from anti-military sentiment and poor homecoming the Vietnam era veterans had to deal with.
“Being involved with these guys has given me the opportunity to become proud of my military service,” Robertson said.
Being able to craft his own bamboo fly rod allowed Robertson come full circle.
“Making my own rod is kind of the icing on the cake, but being with these guys and the camaraderie – there’s nothing that compares to it,” he said. “It’s as best as life gets.”
Ken Kane, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, started making bamboo fly rods in 1998. He supplied the materials for Bamboo Bend, and was then was invited to be instructor three years ago.
Kane, who lost his wife, Claudia, said the project is a labor of love and a healing experience for the instructors just as it is for the veterans.
“For me, I lost my wife a few years ago, and it was as much a healing event for me as it was for the veterans to be able to work with people, and to see something go from a raw state to a finished product,” Kane said. “It’s just an amazing feeling to see how pretty they are when the get done.”
The veterans last week stayed at the Oxbow Club, a private fishing club that was established on the South Branch of the Ausable River in 1919.
The veterans completed their stay in Grayling with float trips down the AuSable River and Manistee River with local river guides that were free of charge.
Mark Mackey, from Ashland, Wisconsin, who served 23 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantryman, completed his second year as president for Bamboo Bend.
Mackey said project organizers and the veterans were grateful for the support.
“Our 49th bamboo rod will come out of this class, so we’re pretty proud of that,” he said.
In a show of appreciation for the support, Bamboo Bend is reserving a seat in its program for a veteran from the Grayling-Kalkaska area.
“I’m going to do that for the foreseeable future,” he said. “I would love to have a Grayling area veteran in next year’s class.”
For more information, contact Mackey at firstname.lastname@example.org.